Today’s Alternative Style Icon hails from Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People: The Bourgeois Revolutionary. What can he teach us?
To answer that, we have to consider what he was fighting for. What inspired him to take up a rifle that (as an art critic in The Guardian pointed out) he seems to barely know how to hold? The easy answer is the liberty, equality and fraternity that the French flag, prominently flown here, has come to symbolize, thanks in part to this painting.
Liberty seems like the most accessible element of this painting, personified as she is by an amply-proportioned woman with her breasts fearlessly hanging out. Of course, that’s not just to titillate Isle, but because liberty nourishes the people. She holds the tricolor standard of the French Revolution above the smoke and chaos, and wears on her head the Phrygian cap of revolution. In fact, Madame Liberty as depicted here has come to symbolize France itself, as Marianne, persona of the Republic. In modern times her avatar has shifted regularly from beautiful woman to beautiful woman, from Catherine Deneuve to Inès de la Fressange to onetime tax exile Laetitia Casta. So the Bourgeois Revolutionary has taken up arms to both follow a woman (quite liberated, this, for the times) and to defend her, as Liberty and as the personification of republican, rather than monarchical, France.
Which leads us to equality: While the painting’s bloody, smoky and chaotic, it does not depict the events of the original French Revolution that began in 1789. The revolution that English critics accused of leveling down, including through the descent of a guillotine’s blade. Instead, it shows the climax of a four-day, relatively bloodless uprising in 1830, the so-called July Revolution provoked not by bread riots and a shortsighted revolt of the nobility (as was the case with the 1789 revolution), but by a monarch’s steady rollback of the rights of and promises to the people enshrined in the constitution. (A constitution created at the restoration of the very monarchy overthrown in the 1789 revolution.) These began with increases to the amounts payable to the nobles who had had their properties confiscated during the original revolution (in other words, a promotion of the extreme inequality that had led to revolution in the first place), to censorship, and then to the king’s attempts to change the constitution by decree. The Bourgeois, then, may be out on the streets to protect the instrument that had given him his rights, that had even lain the path for a prosperous middle class.
But look (at long last) at his clothes! He isn’t just natty because he has a cause and a stake in society worth dying for. He wears a knotted cravat, a redingote (the French misappropriation of the English word “riding coat”, and used instead for a version of the frock coat), a top hat, and trousers. Trousers! This is a modern man! Before the original French revolution, nobles and the prosperous wore breeches instead, so infamously that the trouser-wearing working class who overthrew them were known by their choice of legwear, as the sans-culottes (literally, “without breeches”). A top hat! If he is among equals, then surely he is primus inter pares, first among equals. In fact, he is part of an unlikely internationale, that of a spreading democratization of elegant men’s dress. Beau Brummell, by now in syphilitic decline in Caën, has triumphed! He leveled English royal fashions with his commoner’s countrified touch, to garments like those of our Bourgeois Revolutionary friend, clothes that derived from more casual clothing, clothes of plain woven cloth that required cut rather than the draped resplendence of ornately patterned luxury fabrics like silk brocades. Even the French bourgeoisie have adopted this levelling Britishism by now! Equality among gentlemen shall eventually become a question of umbrellas.
Is Bourgeois Revolutionary equal among his peers on the barricades? For this is where he has chosen to station himself, on a heap of cobblestones pulled up from the Paris streets, making his stand alongside other archetypes: an artisan in apron holding a sabre; a student wearing the special bicorn hat of Napoleon’s Ecole Polytechnique, a street kid with a gun in each hand. Marianne has brought them together. In the cause, they find fraternity. A fight for a better world? They’ll settle for the return of the rights they were defending. Even though well placed in society, Bourgeois Revolutionary knows that after oppressing the least powerful and least popular, the forces of government could come for him.
In fact, the July Revolution led to only modest changes, among them the installation of a new citizen-King (le Roi bourgeois) who paid more attention to his constitutional limits and dressed like a commoner, like Bourgeois Revolutionary in fact.
Even though some historians have theorized that Delacroix painted himself into this picture as Bourgeois Revolutionary, it’s known Delacroix himself did not participate in the July Revolution itself. Apparently he risked losing the royal commissions he depended on. However, he wrote that “If I cannot fight for my country, I paint for it.” Each of us should do what we can, coming dressed as we are for the occasion.